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A cyclone brews over Saudi Arabia

Von David Ignatius


Washington - An internal political storm is roiling Saudi Arabia, as the crown prince and his deputy jockey for power under an aging King Salman - while some other members of the royal family agitate on behalf of a third senior prince who they claim would have wider family support.

For the secretive oil kingdom, whose internal debates are usually opaque to outsiders, the recent strife has been unusually open. The tension between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and his deputy, Mohammed bin Salman (the king's son), is gossiped about across the Arab world. Dissenters from the royal family have begun circulating open letters that have drawn tens of thousands of readers online.

Succession worries were in the background in early September when Salman, 79, visited Washington, accompanied by his son Mohammed bin Salman, 30. U.S. officials were eager to meet the young deputy crown prince. But they were concerned that "MBS," as he's known, might be challenging Mohammed bin Nayef, who is viewed in Washington as a reliable ally against al-Qaeda.

Mohammed bin Salman's supporters argue that he's an ambitious change agent in a kingdom that needs one - after suffering from decades of aging, defensive leaders. The young prince urges more diversification of the economy, greater privatization, and a future that's closer to the more open model of the United Arab Emirates than to the conservative House of Saud. He is said to have engaged top U.S. consulting firms in framing his modernization plans.

"His vision is hugely impressive in its scope, detail and pace," says one former senior U.S. official who recently had a lengthy meeting with Mohammed bin Salman. The current, frenetic political situation "could be the early stages of upheaval, or of a Saudi Arabia that's vastly more capable, economically, politically and militarily."

Critics counter that Mohammed bin Salman is impulsive and inexperienced - and that he has championed a costly but unsuccessful war in Yemen. These dissenters argue that the Yemen war has strengthened al-Qaeda's position there and brought new pressure from refugees and insurgents on Saudi Arabia's border.

The internal tension has increased over the past month. Days after returning from Washington, Salman (at his son's urging) fired Saad al-Jabri, a minister who was Mohammed bin Nayef's top adviser. The U.S. and other Western nations were concerned because Jabri had been one of the kingdom's main intelligence contacts with the West. Jabri is said to have questioned Mohammed bin Salman's tactics in Yemen, fearing that al-Qaeda was growing stronger there.

Mohammed bin Nayef has also been undercut by the disbanding of the royal court structure that was available for previous crown princes. Without his own court, he's had to rely on the king's son, who, though nominally his deputy, controls access to the king and makes most key decisions.

The succession quarrel has opened the way for a broader debate within the family, including four open letters calling for removal of the king and his crown princes. I spoke several times recently by telephone with a senior prince who wrote two of the letters, which were first noted in a Sept. 28 article in The Guardian by its Cairo correspondent, Hugh Miles.

The dissident prince told me he favors the installation of Prince Ahmed, 73, a son of the founding King Abdul-Aziz. "He would be the choice of 85 percent of the Al-Saud family," argued this prince, who requested anonymity. Ahmed served briefly as minister of interior but he was never in the line of succession to King Abdullah, who died in January.

The prince's first letter criticized "the marginalization of the sons of Abdul-Aziz" and danger to "the strength and closeness of the family and its staying in power." He followed with a second, shorter letter discussing Salman's "weakness" and arguing that he was "completely reliant on his son's rule." Two other inflammatory letters have surfaced, supposedly written by other anonymous family members.

Power politics suggests that the current stalemate could continue awhile.  Salman controls the money; Mohammed bin Nayef controls the interior ministry and its surveillance network; and Mohammed bin Salman controls the key oil and economic ministries. The deputy crown prince told a recent visitor that he didn't expect to be king until he was 55, which is roughly Mohammed bin Nayef's age. That informal comment is hardly a guarantee of stability, however.

How will this Saudi political cyclone evolve? Given the uproar in the normally placid kingdom over the last nine months, the answer from veteran Saudi watchers is: Nobody knows.

(c) 2015, Washington Post Writers Group

David Ignatius was the executive editor of the "International Herald Tribune". His column also appears in the "Washington Post".